If Election Day 2023 demonstrated anything, it is that abortion won’t go away as an issue any time soon.
In race after race after race in which abortion became a focal point — even those in which it really should have had no bearing — the message was clear.
Reproductive rights now are a dividing line, an issue that has the potential to redefine and realign party loyalties. Those who support reproductive rights now are as determined and combative as the single-issue anti-abortion crusaders or zealots — depending upon one’s point of view — have been for decades.
That much became clear as the results rolled in.
Even in red states, abortion proved to be a potent force.
In Ohio, which landed decisively for Donald Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, voters backed a measure to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution, overruling a Republican-backed state law in the process.
In Kentucky, incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear ran against a well-connected and well-funded Republican opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, and won decisively in a deep red state Trump carried by 26 points three years ago. Beshear pledged repeatedly to preserve reproductive rights.
Closer to home, here in Indiana Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, beat back a challenge from Republican Jefferson Shreve, even though Shreve’s campaign war chest doubled Hogsett’s.
Even though mayors have nothing — nothing — to do with abortion law, the issue became a central one in the race, forcing Shreve to play defense. Instead of using his more than $14 million in campaign funds to dissect Hogsett’s record over two terms in office, Shreve found himself cutting spots in which he tried — ineffectively — to deliver a civics lesson about the different responsibilities of municipal, state and local governments.
There’s a cliché: In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Shreve spent a lot of time explaining.
But that’s because circumstances focused him to do so.
The Dobbs decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of last year has energized new groups of voters. That decision overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established abortion as a constitutionally guaranteed right for a half-century. The court did so even though the three new justices who provided the votes necessary to strip away the right all had pledged during their confirmation hearings that they considered Roe “established law.”
Much of the opposition to the Dobbs decision sprang from the substance of the decision itself — the fact that, for the first time in U.S. history, the Supreme Court had voted to take away an individual right rather than expand individual liberties.
Some of it also came from the way the decision came about — the disingenuousness of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett when they answered questions about abortion before the U.S. Senate and the Machiavellian machinations of then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to put all three on the bench.
Wherever the anger comes from, it is real.
And it is a force.
That is the overriding lesson from this year’s balloting.
The implications for campaigns as we head into presidential, gubernatorial and Senate races next year could be profound.
Democrats will look at Andy Beshear’s victory in one of the reddest states in America and deduce that discussing abortion opens a path to victory anywhere. That lesson will be reinforced by Ohio voters’ emphatic decision to establish abortion rights in their state constitution and a strong showing by Democrats in Virginia state legislative races.
Expect Democrats in the coming year to talk about abortion and reproductive rights at every opportunity, convinced they have an issue that resonates with voters.
As if on cue, the Democratic leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne, issued a statement after Ohio’s decision became clear:
“Midwesterners don’t like the government telling them what they can and can’t do, plain and simple. This includes reproductive freedom. Ohio and Indiana both lean conservative, yet when given a choice, Ohioans voted for the right to choose. Currently, the Indiana Constitution does not grant Hoosiers the right to citizen-led ballot initiatives. To truly represent Hoosiers and grant them a voice, Indiana lawmakers must enshrine the right to be heard at the ballot box in our constitution.”
Well, they can try to deliver civics lessons.
Perhaps Jefferson Shreve can advise them on how well that works.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected].